The iceberg of employee satisfaction: what happens below the surface

March 6, 2018 - 5 minute read

"Great thanks, how are you?" It's the age-old answer when you bump into someone in the street and they ask how you're doing... an answer but it actually says nothing at all.

The same applies to employee satisfaction. It's human nature: ask someone for a status update and the automatic reaction will be to tell you that things are going well - employees too. And it's not a lie either. If you only ask them every so often, they'll take a big picture view and say that things are generally going well. Great, but it raises a question about how an organisation can improve. 

Many of the frustrations or improvement opportunities that employees notice occur gradually and they forget - or don't have the opportunity - to report them at the moment that matters. So we need to do away with the big moment in time special feedback surveys and sounding board sessions and instead focus on gradually and regularly gaining an insight into what happens below the surface!

Monitoring employee satisfaction

Mapping how satisfied employees feel about their work is essential in creating a positive employee experience. After all, employees are the ones who encounter problems in practice and have real first-person experience of where process, services or products can actually be improved. There are different ways to measure employee satisfaction. However, there is a limit to the amount and type of information that employers will hear directly from employees: namely, that you're only going to hear the information that they feel comfortable with sharing. There's a pretty decent chance that there is more going on in their heads.

The following could be signals that there is more going on than you actually see.

  • Colleagues give little input during a (group) conversation.
  • Employees do not (any longer) respond to questions they're asked or surveys they're sent.
  • Colleagues only respond very briefly.
  • There's a lack of alignment between what employees do and what they say.

Reading tip: How an internal social network contributes to transparent communication

The iceberg metaphor

As a manager, when mapping employee satisfaction it is important to be aware that there is a difference between what your employees tell you and what actually happens. Apply the iceberg metaphor to your employees - especially if you manage a large team of non-desk employees - and always be aware that you hear and see only a limited part of what happens. By being aware of this, you can look for unspoken signals and recognise discontent at an early moment... and respond to it.

Model: the employee satisfaction iceberg

In the 'employee satisfaction iceberg' model that we developed, you can see how which thoughts are present at different stages of employee satisfaction, and you can also learn and employ specific tactics to get to those thoughts.


If you only have insight into the externally-presented thoughts of employees, you miss out on valuable information. You need to tap into and understand what is going on in the inner circle of employees, because this is where important discussions and thought-forming take place under the radar. These 'pundits in the corridors' influence how large numbers of employees find their work and how supported they feel. And that is what you, as a people manager, want to understand!

Three ways to increase employee satisfaction

Employees who feel at home with their employer will express their thoughts earlier and more often than when this is not the case. It is therefore essential to take responsibility as an employer for people to feel at home with your organisation. If you sow the right degree of trust, you'll also benefit from a high level of employee satisfaction!

The following three suggestions provide managers with the opportunity to influence and improve employee satisfaction:

1. Do what you say and say what you do

Reliability is extremely valuable but can also make you vulnerable. If you make commitments, then you must follow through on them. With that, you inspire others and you demonstrate that you are someone they can build on, like a rock in the surf. With this, you lay the right foundations for sincere employee satisfaction!

2. If you listen, really listen

If someone has worries or concerns, then hear what the person tells you. But listen to what is being said between the lines. In this way, you create a bond of trust and an employee who feels heard.

Reading tip: why frontline organisations need an internal social platform

3. Create a culture of transparent communication

When a decision is made by a department or head office, inform everyone about it clearly. Even those you do not see or connect with first-hand, such as colleagues on the shop floor, in hotels, on construction sites or in healthcare facilities. Keeping them informed ensures that your expectations are managed and everyone knows why decisions are made and what your expectations of them are.

Do you want to increase employee satisfaction? Consider the deployment of enterprise social media.

Download free whitepaper about internal communication
Speakap the Team

Written by Speakap the Team